Pura vida, my ass: 5 years in Costa Rica and all I got was this lousy T-shirt

We are back to our regularly scheduled programming where I complain about things that were nice to me, but turned out to be sort of unbearable. In this installment, the nice country that delivered our son and let us live there for 5 years.

To start – there are nice things about Costa Rica:
  • Unlike the United States, it has accessible and high quality health care. It is a mixed private and public system where gringos like me can take a toddler to the ER at a private hospital and pay $150 to have him evaluated, sedated, and extract the foam he stuffed up his nostril. Meanwhile, everyone else also gets decent service at public hospitals and clinics, perhaps without luxuries like air conditioning (which is quite optional in Costa Rica's climate).

  • Unlike most countries, it does not tax foreign income. This, it turns out, is less a feature and more a predicament.

  • Unlike the United States, it has a reasonable immigration process.

These factors contributed to us moving to Costa Rica in 2012, hoping we'd find a tribe of expatriates and start a family.

We did start a family, but there was no tribe, and oh, boy. We should have moved directly to the US.

The overall lack of ethics is most condemning. This is something all low GDP per capita countries have in common. Low GDP means few recorded transactions, and this is caused partly by cheating the system (transactions happen off the books to avoid tax and accountability) but primarily business just doesn't happen because people do not trust each other, and the reason they don't trust each other is that they keep stabbing each other in the backs.

You can recognize an inhabitant of a poor country when they laugh at you for how naive you are by trusting people and not always watching your back. They think it's common sense that everyone always has to do so, that people who don't are weak and stupid and deserve to be cheated out of what they have.

The elite that runs Costa Rica seemed to us the worst kinds of people who think of themselves as pharaohs and treat their servants accordingly. This extends to the upper middle class, everyone who can afford to hire a domestic employee acts entitled, as if they are better than others and more deserving, while the illegal immigrants from Nicaragua who clean their toilets and nanny their kids are treated as human filth – raising children with that model of behavior.

It's a country in which problems aren't solved. Traffic and roads are whole orders of magnitude worse than any American city. It literally takes a day to do an errand that's 11 miles away, and most of this time is spent in traffic, traveling at the speed of a horse and buggy. A 5 mile commute routinely – not exceptionally – takes 2-3 hours.

I recently visited San José again to sell the condo where we lived. It took over 2 years to sell at a large loss because the market tanked so much. Traffic in San José was already a disaster, now after 2 years... there are new buildings and developments, but no new roads. Toll stations are already congested with waiting times at 1 pm, let alone rush hour.

Selling the condo involved the world's absurdest real estate closing where the buyer's agents first tried to defraud the bank, then the bank tried to defraud the government – insisting on "innovative structures" to evade transfer tax. Then the bank failed to attend the closing, the time and date of which they set up. Then the notary they belatedly sent made mistakes and had to make corrections of corrections. There were unreasonable complications providing legally required translations, etc. It was a uniquely absurd experience even in Costa Rica, but this is a country where all this can happen.

There are endless queues and slow processing times in most institutions. I originally typed much of this while waiting at ICE to disconnect a mobile phone. There were 4 windows working and all of them together would process a person maybe every 15 minutes. One hour per person, per window.

There are nice things, but few. The frustrations of everyday living are an order of magnitude worse than US or Europe. And US and Europe also have nice things – in fact plenty of them!

The cost of everything imported is absurd. The USD exchange rate is x550, but prices are x1000. Locals can't even afford most things. No wonder they eat rice and beans.

Then there's the rain! In San José, it rains 7 months straight every year. Every day is either raining or cloudy.

Safety is a major concern. Houses outside secure communities must have bars. Not just a fence, but a cage that connects to the roof. Buildings need 24/7 security. I know of two people who got shot and died in front of our nice residential building – one execution and one robbery. One of our employees was robbed of nice sunglasses in a park; she had 2 weeks salary stolen in a bus; and one of her acquaintances was killed in broad daylight over an iPhone in a robbery.

There's the general shoddiness of everything. Nothing is nice. Only a handful of private places are well-manicured. Everything else is shoddy and dodgy. Grass is not cut next to roads. There are bus stops literally in the middle of driving lanes on highways. Every type of road, including highway roads, narrows to half the number of lanes for every bridge, tunnel or underpass, because building infrastructure properly is expensive.

My wife felt unsafe going out alone. She experienced frequent casual sexual harassment from strangers. Female friends in Costa Rica experience this every day.

My wife pointed out how tasteless the fruit and vegetables were. The things that tasted good were bananas, avocados, and pineapples. Other fruit and veggies were bland and mediocre compared to what's available in the US. Good tomatoes were unavailable and she threw out a bunch of them. She couldn't get good strawberries, watermelon, etc.

This may sound like a condemnation of San José – but that's where 40% of the country live. Living on the coast, or in the rain forest, means you drive 3-4 hours on rickety roads every time to go shopping or see a doctor. If you're after a nice beach, there are beaches in the Caribbean that are much nicer (but come with similar afflictions).

If you can help it – don't move to Costa Rica.

If you want, visit as a tourist. It can be pricey, but it can be nice. For a few days.

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